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Supporting women’s entrepreneurship during COVID-19 and beyond

It has been five months since COVID-19 tightened its grip on America’s economy and the repercussions weigh most heavily on small business owners, and disproportionately on female business owners across the nation by several measures.

As of the start of the year, women-owned entities represented 42% of all businesses — nearly 13 million in total — and was more than doubling the annual growth rate of all businesses over the past five years. Combined, women-owned small businesses employ 9.4 million workers and generate revenue of $1.9 trillion annually.

These achievements are sadly being replaced by data points that reflect America’s first female recession, as the pandemic is spurring an outsized negative impact on women in the workforce. For the first time since 1948 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking women’s joblessness, female unemployment reached double digits, hitting 16.5% in April. The pandemic has wiped out the job gains of the past decade, which included American women rising to the majority of the paid workforce for just the second time in our history. We’re at risk of losing their talents, skills and voices in our economy.

Yet, amid the pandemic, women business owners are finding innovative ways to pivot their business model to survive. The challenges we all now face — from connectivity to accessible and affordable childcare — are highlighting barriers women entrepreneurs have faced for decades, particularly in our rural communities.

For some, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) served as a viable way to sustain operations. Like many others, my firm Red Sky in Boise, Idaho experienced a disruption this spring due to the impacts and unknowns brought by COVID-19. We immediately shut down our physical office and transitioned our 10 team members to working from home. Some clients deferred work or put a pause on projects that we had planned for as they — and we — tried to anticipate what would happen next.

Thanks to relationships with our local bank and their ability to adapt as quickly as possible to the changing guidelines from the SBA and Treasury, we successfully applied for a PPP loan. Local entities like the Idaho Women’s Business Center provided resources to navigate the process, and the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) — of which I am a member — held webinars that underlined the great work that community banks and small lenders are doing to better reach underserved groups, including women business owners, during this tumultuous time.

Securing that PPP loan firmed up our agency’s confidence in weathering what we face today and what is to come. I’m proud of how we’ve persevered, and that we’ve been able to keep all of our employees on full time. As companies look to what is next, often with conservative and scaled down budgets, we’re adapting our offerings to meet them where they are and help promote and protect their brands in our collective new normal.

We’re incorporating more technology to continue remote working and meetings and strategy sessions, developing online training and coaching offerings, adjusting the pricing and formatting of our services and learning to become even more flexible in how we support working parents.

The NWBC has also shifted to online platforms to keep engaged with women business owners across the country. The Council’s webinar series connects female founders with key experts, resources, and organizations to help them reach their full entrepreneurial potential. The #LetsTalkBusiness virtual roundtables convene business owners, resource partners, government officials, and experts in our three issue priorities: rural women’s entrepreneurship, women in STEM, and access to capital and opportunity.

I serve as chair of the NWBC’s Rural Women’s Entrepreneurship Subcommittee. We remain focused on two particular areas of interest: the economic impact of childcare availability, reliability, and affordability and its unique burden on women’s business enterprise; and the lack of reliable broadband in rural communities, especially its implications for home-based solopreneurs who rely on digital platforms to expand market reach.

Last month, our subcommittee hosted its first virtual roundtable to explore the far-reaching impact of childcare issues as our nation aims to jumpstart the economy and reinvigorate the workforce post-pandemic. I appreciate that Beth Oppenheimer, executive director for the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, joined the roundtable to provide her and AEYC’s expertise. She shared details from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation study, “Untapped Potential: Economic Impact of Childcare Breakdowns on U.S. States.” Results for Iowa, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Mississippi all revealed high revenue and employee turnover costs due to childcare issues. The Council is carefully analyzing federal legislative initiatives to assist the childcare industry during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to change every day, the NWBC will closely monitor the impacts on women’s rural entrepreneurship to develop policy proposals and help connect these business owners to the resources and funding opportunities they desperately need. As we pivot and adapt to the new normal, please connect with the NWBC https://www.nwbc.gov to explore the resources that are available , participate in our programs, and contribute your experiences and ideas so we may better advocate for our nation’s women business owners.

Jess Flynn is the founder and CEO of Red Sky in Boise, Idaho, and also serves as the Rural Entrepreneurship Chair of the National Women’s Business Council.

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